Aloha meant goodbye when former UNLV walk-on quarterback Jarin Morikawa transferred to Jackson State last year. But it will mean hello again Thursday when the Hawaiian returns to Las Vegas as a backup quarterback for the Tigers, who’ll take on the Rebels in the season opener for both schools at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“I never thought that was going to happen,” Morikawa said Tuesday of the matchup. “I had heard some rumors about it in the offseason, but I thought that would be too good to be true. I’m just excited about the opportunity to play against some familiar faces and revisit Sam Boyd again.”
Morikawa, who is listed as Jackson State’s No. 2 quarterback behind starter La Montiez Ivy, threw for 6,189 yards and 61 touchdowns at Mililani High School in Oahu. He was offered the chance to walk on at UNLV by former Rebels coach Bobby Hauck and was a scout-team quarterback here in 2013 and 2014.
“It was a great experience to play Division I football,” he said. “It was always my dream growing up as a kid. I jumped at the opportunity to get a chance to play at the next level.”
Morikawa acted as the Air Force quarterback in practice in 2013 to help UNLV prepare for its 41-21 road win over the Falcons — who haven’t lost at home since — that helped to propel the Rebels to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“I gave him the nickname ‘J Mo’ because I couldn’t say Morikawa at first,” said Caleb Herring, UNLV’s starting quarterback in 2013 who will help call the live stream of Thursday’s 7 p.m. game on Campus Insiders (unlvrebels.com). “He’s not very tall, but he can sling the ball. I remember he had a big arm.”
The 6-foot Morikawa left Las Vegas — fondly referred to as the “Ninth Island” by Hawaiians — for the Deep South because of his relationship with Timmy Chang, the former University of Hawaii star quarterback who was Jackson State’s offensive coordinator the last two seasons.
Morikawa worked with Chang during his senior year of high school and stayed in touch. When Hauck was fired, Morikawa contacted Chang, who offered him a scholarship to the Football Championship Subdivision school and the chance to operate the run-and-shoot offense Chang ran for the Rainbow Warriors while throwing for 17,042 yards and 117 TDs.
“Timmy Chang and (ex-Hawaii QB) Colt Brennan were my two idols growing up, and I got the opportunity to play under one of them,” Morikawa said. “It was a neat experience to build a relationship and learn under him.”
Morikawa, a junior, started four games last season when Ivy was injured and threw for 633 yards and five TDs. After Tony Hughes was hired as the Tigers’ new coach, Chang left to become the offensive coordinator at Emory &Henry, a Division III school in Virginia.
“It was tough because we were close,” he said. “But I feel comfortable down here and I just wanted to finish out my education.”
While Morikawa said Chang helped smooth his transition to the historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi, he also became fast friends with center Alem Amores, his roommate from Oakland, California.
“We were West Coast guys coming down to the South, and we got real close,” he said. “We blended in well with the team. Everybody here is nice and friendly.”
While Morikawa said he still gets homesick, he was surprised to see a Hawaiian on the school’s women’s soccer and volleyball teams.
“I was shocked when I found out,” he said. “I don’t know how three kids from Hawaii ended up at Jackson State.”
Morikawa became a homecoming hero last season for the Tigers in his first Division I start, throwing for 333 yards and three TDs in a 37-3 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
It was one of only three wins for Jackson State, which has since ditched the run-and-shoot in favor of a more balanced attack. Depending on how Thursday’s game plays out, Hughes said there’s a chance Morikawa will see action against UNLV, a 34-point favorite.
“I look forward to going against my old teammates,” Morikawa said. “It’s always exciting to open up the season against an FBS school where nobody really gives you a chance.”